What is ‘Neurodivergence’? Who counts as ‘Neurodivergent?
The concepts of Neurodiverse, Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence have been with us now for 20-25 years, but the subtle differences in meaning between several quite similar terms can be understandably tricky to understand.
The ideas of Neurodiversity and, later, Neurodivergence arose in the autistic community during the 1990s and early 2000s and people often associate the terms with autistic people, but they are actually far more general – and useful – than just ways to talk about autistics.
The big question, really, is this: Am I Neurodivergent? Answering that is actually not that hard, so let’s work through it.
All those ‘neuro-‘ words (Neurodiversity, Neurodiverse, Neurodivergence, etc.) build on the same base as things like neuroscience and neurology. They all refer to your nervous system. Mostly, people think of this as being about your brain, but actually it deals with the way not just your brain but your whole central nervous system functions, plus all the nerves that manage automatic body functions, your senses, signals to your muscles and so on. The entire nervous system.
In the widest sense, anything to do with any nerves in your body is included here. When we talk about Neurodiversity, that’s what we’re referring to: that all humans have some level of variance in how their nervous systems operate. There is a diversity across the human population. Not really that controversial or difficult, is it? It’s like saying ‘humans have a diversity of hair colour.’ It is just describing an unsurprising aspect of the human species.
Cool. So, what does Neurodivergent mean?
When you have a large number of people – the entire population of earth in this case – we can measure characteristics, and most people fall near the middle-range. As characteristics present in more extreme ways, fewer and fewer people show those characteristics. That minority ‘diverges’ from the midrange, and when we talk about Neurodivergent people, it is that minority we’re referring to.
Deciding where the edge of ‘divergent’ lies in each case is fairly arbitrary as there’s no universal law that determines this, so we need to work out ways to guide opinion, and in the end, people need to decide for themselves whether they feel Neurodivergent (or not) based on those guides and their personal experience.
At the most general level, people assessed as having some state of being that includes what gets categorised as a psychiatric condition, a brain or other nervous system injury or impairment, or significant sensory or motor or cognitive difference are Neurodivergent, because something about how their nervous system functions affects their relationship with the world in a significant way.
Here’s a few examples to give some sense of the breadth of possibilities this captures:
- Acquired conditions like dementia, acquired brain injury, or PTSD are included because they involve changes to how parts of our nervous system function, which changes how we experience, interpret and respond to our environment.
- Sensory processing differences such as misophonia, synaesthesia, photophobia and epilepsy are clearly Neurodivergences.
- Things typically classified as mental illness are included also, such as bipolar, multiplicity, depression, OCD, anxiety and so on.
- Similarly, we include everything regarded as a learning disability like dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia.
- And, of course, a collection of states of being – Autistic, ADHD/ADD, Tourette’s etc. – that don’t fit easily into the other categories.
Many of these have traditionally been categorised as psychiatric or physical disorders or illnesses, regarded as failures to be fully human, and viewed as reasons to strip people of basic rights, subject them to institutionalisation, restraint, medication or surgery, and worse.
The more we learn about the stunning complexity of the human condition, the constant interaction between ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ between brain and other organs, the moment-to-moment adjustment of bodily processes, interpretation of experiences, forms of expression, and the concept of Self, the more we come to appreciate the wonderful diversity of human possibility, with all our flaws and capabilities. It is clear that diversity is essential to our success as a species and the richness of our cultures, but also that human rights and human dignity are not something earned by succeeding in performing some arbitrary ‘neuro-normal’ any more than entitlements due to being born into a social elite, a particular gender, or one country or culture rather than another.
Most of all, the idea of Neurodiversity is about reclaiming and asserting the inherent right to autonomy, dignity, and respect all humans are entitled to simply by being human, and in particular for those of us who are Neurodivergent.
We are celebrating ‘Neuro Pride’ because we have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide, every reason to hold our heads high… and if you see yourself as Neurodivergent too, you are our Neurokin, we embrace you, and we welcome you to join us in celebration.